Iran's and world powers' delegations sit prior the start of...

Iran's and world powers' delegations sit prior the start of two days of closed-door nuclear talks at the United Nations offices in Geneva. (Oct. 15, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

What's the best strategy for denying nuclear weapons to Iran? Negotiators from the world's major powers came close to getting a preliminary agreement with Iran last week to slow its nuclear program-an agreement scuttled at the last second when France made its opposition plain.

Hawks in the U.S. applauded the failure, saying the agreement would've started easing sanctions against Iran with little to show in return. Secretary of State John Kerry, however, suggested that progress was still possible.

How best to deny nuclear weapons to Iran and ensure security in the Mideast? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.

JOEL MATHIS: Teddy Roosevelt helped inaugurate the United States as a world power with a simple phrase: "Speak softly," he said, "and carry a big stick." These days, it seems, America's hawks are only interested in the stick.

The stick, however, has already done its job in Iran. Now is the time to see if carrots can help produce an enduring result.

Iran is at the atomic bargaining table for several reasons. One is the covert action taken by Israel and the United States in recent years to slow Iran's apparent drive toward a weapon-unleashing the Stuxnet computer virus and (in all likelihood) assassinating several Iranian nuclear scientists.

The United States and much of the world community have also greatly tightened sanctions in recent years, causing a noticeable drop in the quality of life of many Iranians. And, of course, the country has been shadowed by the knowledge that finally achieving a nuclear weapon would result, perhaps immediately, in an attack by Israel, the U.S., or both.

Stick. Stick. And stick.

So it's somewhat befuddling why conservatives would be so opposed to a slight easing of sanctions in order to produce a temporary halt in Iran's nuclear program. Carrots are supposed to be in the diplomatic toolbox; if the idea is to pull the country away from nukes and setting it on a new course, Iran will need the U.S. and its allies to produce some carrots before the process is over.

Conservatives-in Israel and the U.S.-seem to believe that war is inevitable, and thus act impatient with any policy that delays or derails the march to armed conflict. But war with Iran, even if eventually needed, seems likely to be a messy, bloody affair whose violence could spill and spread clear around the world. Wisdom (and simple humanity) would seem to require an effort at a peaceful resolution.

We've seen, in Iraq and Afghanistan, what happens when our leaders disregard carrots entirely, when they rely entirely on sticks: We get stuck. Let's have a more nuanced approach in Iran.

BEN BOYCHUK: The main tool in the U.S. diplomatic arsenal against Iran's nuclear program isn't a big stick, but a big wish. A wish that multilateral talks will result in a nuclear-free Iran and a stable Middle East. A wish that limited sanctions and a few assassinations would somehow compel the mullahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions, rather than dig in their heels and continue decades of deception.

America's biggest stick of all-regime change-has never been a real option in Iran. George W. Bush certainly didn't take the idea seriously, nor did he make Tehran believe its very existence hung in the balance. How could he after the debacle in Iraq and years of dithering over North Korea's nukes? And let's face it, Barack Obama is far less decisive on this question than Bush ever was.

The Obama administration much prefers carrots to sticks. The carrot on offer here is relaxing limited economic sanctions. Truth is, we've never attempted real economic sanctions against Iran, and we likely never will. Real sanctions, as Boston University political scientist Angelo Codevilla has observed, "can be deadlier than atom bombs." But, Codevilla argues, total economic sanctions would also mean total war, "not just against Iran but potentially against Russia and any other country forced to choose sides."

Does anyone seriously believe Obama and John Kerry are prepared to tussle with the Russians and the Chinese? Of course not! The deal that fell through last week actually conceded Iran's right to enrich uranium and maintain its nuclear infrastructure.

Short of full-scale war, then, Iran will have its nuclear weapons. The balance of power in the Middle East will shift dramatically, Israel will be left vulnerable, and the United States' power and prestige in the region will diminish massively.

Truth is, this president has no interest in going to war with Iran, and neither do most Americans. No matter what happens in Geneva in the coming days and weeks, an already unsettled world is about to get more dangerous. All because of a big wish.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis is a contributing editor to Philadelphia Magazine.

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